Tallgrass Film Festival Review – Klondike

This review is for a film originally viewed at the 20th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival. WD;ED will update when the film becomes available either in theatres or on VOD.

You truly know the people in your life, right? Your neighbor may have always been a little funny, but he’s an okay guy. Your siblings, your spouses, your romantic partners, they are all decent people and wouldn’t go astray…would they?

That’s a question asked by Maryna Er Gorbach’s war film, produced by Ukraine and Turkey in a collaboration exploring the universal understanding that war invades the home when you least expect it and that people can step off the path of humanity so quickly you’d forget they ever stood on solid ground.

Irka (Oksana Cherkasyna) and Tolik (Sergey Shadrin) are living their small-but-happy life in rural Ukraine. Due to Irka’s near-term pregnancy, Tolik is preparing the house for the baby, but when a bomb blows a hole in the side of their home things begin to grow tense as the Russians press further into their home territory. When an international flight is mysteriously brought down near their home loyalties begin to be tested, with trust and personal history no longer mattering in the face of the incoming battle. Which pops first: Irka’s pregnancy, her younger brother Yaryk’s (Oleg Scherbina) militant hatred of the invaders, or Tolik’s burgeoning belief that the Russians might just be the saviors of their country if aided by separatist militia groups?

Klondike is a film that asks how well you know the people in your life. Its selection at Sundance was met with sobered, contemplative reviews, but its entry into the Tallgrass Film Festival feels specific. Sure, it’s set in Ukraine, but wide rural landscapes with fields of sunflowers and armed neighbors that sometimes seem fascist feel all too real in the heartland of America. Gorbach is touching on the universal truth of civilian life in wartime – that you don’t truly ever know anyone.

Tolik isn’t sure he knows himself. He tends to the hard labor while his very pregnant wife cooks and cleans, but often he slips away to spend time talking with his friend, Sanya. Is Sanya right about the incoming Russian forces? Could they truly be the saviors of rural Ukraine or are they merely incoming thugs with no care in the world for how they accomplish their goals. Sanya doesn’t care as long as he is allowed to keep carrying his AK-47 and enjoy the constant stream of alcohol the militia provides, but part of him seems afraid of the very people he’s supporting. Tolik wants to believe his friend, but the reality of his very pregnant wife means he has to contend with other realities as well as the one in his head, and that complicates his thought process.

Klondike is visually structured like a stage play, and with only 4 real characters (I don’t count the nameless Russian military grunts that pop in and out) it definitely feels like one. Cinematographer Svyatoslav Bulakovskiy and production designer Serdar Caglar have designed a small set that relies almost entirely on geography to create impact. Gorbach’s camera pans slowly around the home as it comes to ruin, steady and allowing actors to come in and out of our field of vision within this beautiful, broken landscape. While never less than contemplative it seems to have no judgment on the events in the frame. The characters do, sure, but the camera is the ever-observant watcher that captures the story of a family as it breaks down in the face of incoming brutality.

Klondike is a brutal film, but one that needs to be seen. Set in 2014 Ukraine, sure, but reaching towards a reality that we all must accept that we live with and all it asks is that we consider one another first and foremost. A simple request, but one that is increasingly difficult across the globe.

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